PPB dealing with ‘perfect storm’ of car thefts

The number of stolen cars has increased 31%

Portland Police Bureau headquarters in downtown Portland, Feb. 22, 2016 (KOIN)
Portland Police Bureau headquarters in downtown Portland, Feb. 22, 2016 (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – In a five month period last year, theft of motor vehicles spiked 90% in the city. Police worry they are in the midst of a perfect storm when it comes to fighting back.

Crime stats show ‘sharp rise’ in stolen cars

In August 2015, the Portland Police Bureau took 342 reports of stolen cars. That number swelled by 90% in 5 months to 649 stolen vehicles, according to data released by the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office.

The data also reveals that in 2014, a total of 3,552 vehicles were stolen in the city. That number then jumped 21% to 4,302 in all of 2015.

In May 2016, PPB released crime stats for the first 4 months of 2016. The data shows that in the 4 month period between January and April, 1,450 motor vehicles were stolen in Portland. Compared to the 5 year average, it was a 31% increase.

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Police comb the area of NE 120th and Holladay after a stolen car chase, Sept. 2, 2015 (KOIN)
Police comb the area of NE 120th and Holladay after a stolen car chase, Sept. 2, 2015 (KOIN)

DA’s Office: Action was ‘obviously needed’

Multnomah County Senior Deputy District Attorney Brian Davidson said Oregon’s law of unauthorized use of a motor vehicle includes anyone riding in, driving, operating, or using a motor vehicle without the owner’s consent.

Davidson supervises the property crimes unit within the DA’s Office.

“Not everyone thinks about this, but for most people, their car is the most valuable thing that they own,” Davidson said. “(For) a lot of these folks, it’s not high end cars that are really being stolen. It’s working class folks, single mothers who rely on their car to get their kids to daycare and get themselves to work.”

Davidson said the average car being stolen in the city has a value between $1,500 and $2,500.

Stealing a car is a Class-C felony in Oregon. Davidson said in many of the cases that get investigated, his office is able to add on additional charges based on the suspected criminal activity that occurs during and after a car is stolen. Often times, victims will leave bank cards in their vehicles that may get used fraudulently.

“It’s not just the trauma of losing your sole piece of transportation sometimes that is accompanied by identity theft,” Davidson said.

Court of Appeals ruling: Making a prosecutor’s job harder

In Feb. 2015, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled prosecutors must present enough evidence during trial to prove that a defendant “actually knew” the vehicle was stolen and they did not have the consent of the owner to drive it.

The Port of Portland Police Department says the vehicle Aden Donald Thomas was driving was used to hit a patrol car and was stolen. (KOIN)

The ruling marks a “significant departure” from previous case law, according to Davidson.

“The Court of Appeals came by and said no, you’ve got to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, every reasonable doubt, that the defendant knew the car was stolen or that they were operating the car without the owner’s consent,” according to Davidson.

The DA’s Office is now working with the PPB Training Division to come up with a training video for officers so they can work on building strong cases that will stand up in court.

“The burden is actually going to fall on the uniform officer because a case that used to be more easily provable with less work, is now going to require more work from the uniform officers who have made that (traffic) stop,” Davidson said.

The DA’s Office is also reviewing the cases that have come into its office to look for prolific car thieves. Using that data, prosecutors can show a potential jury patterns that prove the suspect repeatedly knew the vehicle they were stopped in was stolen. In Multnomah County, prosecutors are relying on Ballot Measure 57 that calls from presumptive prison sentences for repeat property offenders.

Prison beds in the state are limited, Davidson said.

“But for the prolific car thief who does not seem detoured, then we’ve got the option of sending them to prison,” he said.

Police: Lots of ‘different reasons’ behind crime increase

“One of the challenges we’re facing right now is with our staffing shortage,” Portland Police spokesperson Sgt. Pete Simpson said. “There are fewer officers able to do the follow up on auto theft investigations.”

Simpson also calls the combination of repeat offenders, the new case law and fewer officers to investigate a “perfect storm.”

He described prolific car thieves as those who “…are able to navigate the system very well and steal a lot of cars.”

“The thieves that are doing this…they are career criminals,” Simpson said. “They are playing the odds of getting caught and getting prosecuted against continuing to steal.”

As detectives work with the DA’s Office on building cases against repeat offenders, Simpson said the resources can dry up given the caseload the detectives already have.

Police say many of the vehicles at West Coast Car Crushing were stolen (KOIN)

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the bureau had the “Auto Theft Task Force.” It was described by Simpson as a “tremendous” resource to the city.

“Overtime, with budget things, we had to eliminate things along the line and that was one of the things fell victim to the budget cuts,” Simpson said.

Simpson said the bureau isn’t able to – even with the number of stolen vehicles increasing – revive the Auto Theft Task Force.

“We’re in a position right now of having to cut more units and more people from more units because of the budget that we have,” he said. “We have tools that we use to combat auto theft, but we don’t have the personnel, really, to support the investigative side of what needs to be done.”

When it comes to the new case law officers and prosecutors must deal with, Simpson said officers will be able to build stronger cases, but that it will take much longer than it used to.

“For most people, they would say, ‘Gee, of course the guy stole the car. Of course he knows it’s stolen.’ And unfortunately, the case law is not reflective of that. It’s not helping us in that area,” Simpson said.

The officers really need a confession or witnesses to prove the person had knowledge the vehicle was stolen, according to Simpson.

“Systematically, it’s beneficial to these crooks right now,” Simpson said.

Two Portland police officers suffered minor injuries when a stolen car rammed through a police blockade on NE Pacific Street, Jan. 16, 2015 (KOIN 6 News)

He said the amount of time officers are investing into stolen car cases is similar to the amount of work detectives put in on assault and robbery cases.

Prevention Is Key

Simpson said every driver should be easily able to convey the make, model, color and license plate in case it gets stolen. He suggested that drivers:

  • Park in a well-lit area
  • Ensure that doors and windows are closed and locked
  • All personal belongings, including phones, handbags and chargers are out of sight
  • Ensure the vehicle’s alarm system is property working
  • Consider investing in an alarm that disables the vehicle if set off
  • Consider using a steering wheel locking device

“The best victim is the person who is never a victim in the first place,” Davidson said. “The best thing you can do is to take steps to protect that your car is never stolen in the first place.”

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